(April 5) This could be the year for the vegetarian section in your department — although you may want to rename it.

With all the talk of low-carbohydrate and high-protein diets, soy product manufacturers are in soy heaven since their products inherently have few carbs. In addition, suppliers have risen to the occasion and come out with new products and reformulations that dare anyone to claim their goods taste like cardboard.

If suppliers thought they were targeting vegetarians before, they clearly understand the new audience, and so should you.

Last year, produce department soy sales increased 26% over the previous year at Roche Bros. Supermarkets Inc., a chain of 15 stores based in Wellesley, Mass., says Paul Kneeland, director of produce and floral.

“I attribute that to low-carb diets and the attention to obesity in the media, not to mention people that are vegans and lactose intolerant that can eat (soy) cheese,” he says. Soy cheese and tofu are the top sellers among the 24 linear feet the stores devote to the soy category.

Kneeland believes the biggest challenge is keeping the category exciting, and he hopes suppliers will improve the flavor each time they evaluate their products. “They have to concentrate on taste and getting the customer to come back,” he says.

TASTE LIFT

Suppliers catch the drift. Take Delta, British Columbia-based Yves Veggie Cuisine — famous for its veggie burgers.

The veggie burgers were developed with vegans in mind, and vegans don’t eat dairy products. However, a little dairy would improve the flavor, so in April, the company, which is owned by The Hain Celestial Group Inc., Melville, N.Y., will launch a new product line called Authentic Yves Veggie Cuisine geared to mainstream consumers. The first two items in the line will be the Savory Veggie Burger, which is a veggie patty, and the Authentic Good Burger, which is made to look like a hamburger, only without meat, says Joe Lawer, vice president of sales and marketing. The items contain dairy to enhance the flavor.

Also in April, the company will begin shipping a reformulated-for-taste version of two of its most popular items: The Good Dog (a hot dog substitute) and the Veggie Ground Round.

Since its beginning in 1995, Food Tech International Inc., New Haven, Conn., which markets the Veggie Patch brand of soy products, refused to gear its items to vegetarians and vegans. It set its sights on the mainstream consumer and made flavor its first priority, says Eli Soglowek, owner and president.

“Not even one of our products is fat-free. We don’t believe in it,” Soglowek says. “Product has to be balanced and nutritious and has to taste good most importantly.”

Its two most popular soy-based items are meatless meatballs and spinach nuggets. Capitalizing on the popularity, the company came out with broccoli nuggets and portabella meatballs. In February it introduced vegetarian chicken breasts containing soy. In March it plans to launch a meatless breakfast patty similar to sausage, he says.

Also with an eye for flavor, Turners Falls, Mass.-based Lightlife Foods, owned by ConAgra Foods Inc., Irvine, Calif., extended its popular meatless hot dog line with grill-ready Smart Dogs and Brats with low levels of fat, which make them easier to grill than standard meatless hot dogs, says Darcy Zbinovec, vice president and general manager.

Meatless hot dogs are the most popular items in the refrigerated soy category, according to industry research, she says.

TAKE AIM

You still want to appeal to your vegetarian soy shoppers because they are your best customers and often buy a buggy load of produce, says Jim Ray, vice president of produce operations for the 198 Ingles Markets Inc. stores, with headquarters in Asheville, N.C.

Though the stores break even on the soy category, he believes sales will increase. To keep product moving in the 16-foot sections, he advertises a soy item twice a month.

The stores merchandise the category next to the salad mixes because those who buy salads are health-conscious and more apt to buy soy products, he says.

But it’s those who aren’t apt to buy soy that the industry is trying to attract.

Soglowek with Veggie Patch believes the company is on to something with its nuggets, which appeal to children. Going further in that direction, the company recently introduced meatless Dinosaur Chicken Nuggets. Similar to its meatless chicken nuggets, this new version has a consistency closer to McDonald’s nuggets and is shaped like a dinosaur, he says.

“We don’t see companies doing things to market to kids. We know they are the future for this category,” he says. “Education should start at a young age. It will be easier to convert the kids to include meatless product. We want to pioneer in this area.”

If you don’t market the category to children, consider targeting the time-starved with a convenience theme.

Ingles Markets recently added marinated tofu to its lineup. “People don’t know how to eat (tofu) or have never tried it. This gives an idea of what to do with it,” Ray says.

Last spring Vitasoy USA Inc., Ayer, Mass., introduced the line of four marinated tofu flavors: Thai peanut, teriyaki, ginger sesame and sweet and sour.

Company research showed that consumers want to incorporate tofu into their diet, but since most of it comes in block form, they don’t know what to do with it, says Kathy Grobe, vice president of marketing. That led the company to develop the marinated tofu, which is cubed and can be prepared in the microwave in three minutes.

Tofu is one of the five best-selling soy products and has the highest consumer trial rate at 48%, yet household penetration only is 5% at most, Grobe says. Vitasoy is trying to reel in new users.

MEAL AND DIET SOLUTIONS

Some find the meal solutions angle of the soy category to be the selling point. Add a nutrition message, and you may get new customers.

Kneeland with Roche Bros. is targeting low-carb/high-protein dieters. He promotes the soy category as a healthful alternative to high protein. He includes supplier-sourced channel strips and danglers in the soy section that talk about high proteins and low carbs. He also encourages soy manufacturers to come up with more signs and packaging that highlight the number of carbs in the product.

Unless there’s added breading or sugar, soy products naturally are low in carbs, Veggie Patch’s Soglowek says. The company is focusing on low-carb product introductions for 2004, which means it won’t expand its nugget line much further for now since the nuggets are breaded.

The company also is highlighting the number of carbs contained in the product on the packaging.

But you and manufacturers have to be careful not to use the words “low in carbohydrates” in ads or on signs or packaging, says Miyuki Nagano, marketing manager for House Foods America Corp., Garden Grove, Calif., which manufactures tofu and a few other soy products.

The Food and Drug Administration has not determined what amount is considered low. It is conducting meetings and consulting with experts to establish a definition and could make an announcement any time, she says. In the meantime, it’s safest to just state the number of carbs in the product.

Like other suppliers, Yves Veggie Cuisine is addressing meal solutions with its new products. Last year it launched a line of three entree bowls: Classic Mac ‘n’ Cheese, Thai Lemongrass Veggie Chick’n and Santa Fe Veggie Beef, Lawer says.

It also recently added veggie bacon to its lineup after 73% of consumers in a survey said they wanted a bacon alternative. The veggie bacon contains no cholesterol or preservatives and has only 1 gram of fat per serving, which is 82% less fat than pork bacon, he says.

House Foods also is coming up with meal solutions to tantalize consumers looking for low carbs. It recently introduced noodle-shaped tofu with only 3 grams of carbs per serving, Nagano says. It’s a traditional Japanese food that could make it big in the U.S. as a pasta substitute.

Last summer the company came out with tofu steak made of firm tofu.

Hitting the market now is the company’s extra soft tofu with a yogurtlike consistency. It’s good for making cheesecake, smoothies and party dip, Nagano says.

If you’ve come and gone with the company’s Tofulicious pudding introduced a year ago, you may want to try it again. House Foods recently reformulated it for better flavor and offers it in three varieties: mango, strawberry and coffee latte.

MOVE IT OUT

Now is a good time to promote the soy category since April is Soyfoods Month, and to back it up, many of the soy suppliers are running ads in consumer publications.

Sampling is an effective way to get new soy customers. Roche Bros. demos soy products once every few months. However, after January, it samples them about once a month while consumers are thinking of dieting, Kneeland says.

It’s always attended sampling, cooking the soy product with sauce or vegetables for the best flavor, he says.

Minominee, Mich.-based Angeli’s Food Co. advertises a soy item once a month to keep the category in front of consumers in its three stores, says produce leader Steve Pohl.

He doesn’t reduce the price of the soy items in the ad, keeping them at the standard 30% category markup, he says.

He’s noticed a 12% to 15% increase in soy sales in the past six months. “I can see it growing quite a bit over the next five to 10 years with the trend toward healthy eating,” he says. Plus, he notices an increasing number of articles about soy in the consumer press.

The stores demo soy products about once a month, he says. While some demos are attended, those that are unattended usually feature the meatless salami or pepperoni items. He has noticed the greatest sales increase in those items, the soy burgers and hot dogs.

Find out how you can tie in with whatever the soy manufacturer is doing to promote the category.

“We can’t promote it by ourselves,” Veggie Patch’s Soglowek says.

The company is developing a brochure with ideas for incorporating soy in a low-carb diet, which is available to retailers.

He encourages retailers to promote soy month as low-carb soy month — and as a year-round alternative.

The company also is looking to partner with gyms to allow soy product demos to promote healthy eating at a place where people obviously are thinking about their health, he says.